Thursday, September 24, 2009

Living with a Criminal Record

California has a problem with its prisons: they are bursting at the seams. And a big factor in that overcrowding is the parole system. Two thirds of all parolees released in California end up back behind bars -- often for minor infractions. Because of the packed system, a three-judge panel has ordered California to release 40 thousand inmates over the next two years. The state is grappling with how to comply with that new ruling -- its parole system is already overburdened. In Alameda county, seven thousand parolees are released into the community every year, and half of those ex-cons end up in Oakland.

Integrating those people back into society is tough: parolees face challenges in finding jobs, securing places to live, and dealing with restrictions placed on their behavior. As part of our on-going Fault Lines series looking at the roots and solutions to violence in Oakland, Sandhya Dirks reports on the challenges of living with a criminal record.

Life of a Gun in Oakland

According to the police, the deadliest hours in Oakland are between 8 at night and 4 in the morning, and the most vulnerable place to be is on the street. That is especially true if you are a young black man. The Oakland Police Department reports that about 8 out of 10 of the homicide victims last year were African American males, and 112 of last year’s 125 homicides were gun-related. It’s a paradox: young men carry guns around for protection, yet those very guns are what keep the killing rate so high. For our fourth installment of the Oakland Fault Lines Project, reporter Sarah Gonzalez went out to deep East Oakland to learn more about guns in the community. She wanted to start with the beginning of a guns life on the streets: buying one.

(Photo taken by reporter Sarah Gonzalez)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Corner

“Get it straight: there not just out here to sling and shoot drugs. That’s where it all began, to be sure, but thirty years has transformed the corner into something far more lethal and lasting than a simple marketplace. The men and women who live the corner life are redefining themselves at incredible cost, cultivating meaning in a world that has declared them irrelevant…. lives without any obvious justification are given definition through a simple, self sustaining capitalism.”

-David Simon and Edward Burns, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood, pg 58.

For any of you HBO junkies out there, Simon and Burns are also the minds behind The Wire. Some of the best, smartest, and most compassionate television ever made, in my personal opinion. Oakland is very different than Baltimore, and even Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Unlike these Northern cities, which integrated in unprecedented numbers as an aftermath of slavery, Oakland was part of California’s promised land. Many African Americans relocated to Oakland from the Southwest, in search of jobs with the railroad and other industries. You can still hear the Southern twang mixed into the accents of many residents of East and West Oakland.

But when the Southern Pacific railway went silent, so did many industrial jobs—factories like the regional facility for Granny Goose, and for Gerber, closed their doors as they did in so many places, leaving people without employment. Following the 1970’s, Deep East Oakland became known as home to some of the most notorious streets in California. Before this it had been practically suburban, something still evidenced by the houses and street layout. This is another unique aspect of East Oakland. Despite sharing a sister status with Baltimore, Oakland has (other than possibly the San Antonio Villa Projects made famous by local kingpin Felix Mitchell) no major series of government-built housing projects. There is nothing like Harlem’s depressing bleak mini skyscrapers, or Chicago’s Cabrini Green. But with the closing factories and the mass exodus of (mostly white) middle class families, it started to become the streets we now know as epicenters of violence. As Burns and Simon put it:

“This is an existential crisis rooted not only in race—which the corner has slowly transcended—but in the unresolved disaster of the American rust-belt, in the slow, seismic shift that is shutting down the assembly lines, devaluing physical labor, and undercutting the union pay scale” (The Corner, pg. 59).

There is a message in Burns and Simon about the psychological cost of the death of the working-class American dream. It created the corner, that poverty and lack of hope created the culture of the underground economy. The introduction of crack cocaine here filled a double bill. Ready addicts whose depressed circumstances and lack of economic options made it all too easy for them to fall victim to a drug that dulled the pain. And side by side, it created a marketplace where finally, young black men had a chance to make money, by selling those drugs.

But the underlying message is haunting. The death of working-class America does indeed, transcend race. The death of one way of life with no replacement jobs, with no opportunities or hope to fill the void, will only create more corners, and next time not primarily in black neighborhoods. Maybe then we will take notice and not stick to the safe -- and, I think, sometimes hidden -- assumption that this happened to them but not us.

And when you talk about the crack epidemic to many residents, you realize it is commonly accepted here that crack was introduced by the government. In part to subvert the revolutionary fervor that the sixties and seventies brought to a boil in black neighborhoods across the country. Look no further than the Black Panther Party. Understanding how the past brought us to where we are is essential. But it isn’t enough. Again, I quote Simon and Burns:

“How do we bridge the chasm? How do we begin to reconnect to those now lost to the corner world? As a beginning, at least, we need to shed our fixed perceptions and see it fresh, from the inside….

“We need to start over, to admit that somehow the forces of history and race, economic theory and human weakness have conspired to create a new and peculiar universe in our largest cities. Our rules and imperatives don’t work down here. We’ve got to leave behind the useless baggage of a society and culture that still maintains the luxury of reasonable judgments” (The Corner, pg 60).

Some how, at some point, the rules for surviving changed here.

I met many police officers in my work, good and loyal men. Including OPD’s Deputy Chief Kozicki, who despite his gruff demeanor shows an honesty and willingness to discuss that is hopeful. Yet in the interview and panel discussion we held, Deputy Chief Kozicki kept saying that the community must fix itself, as if this was a tacit admission that police are coming in from the outside. Police are, or at least should be, part of the community. And when a broken community needs fixing, all parts must be fixed. Fault lines are not just divides; they are also the spider cracks that exist everywhere. If we are truly to reach out to the truth of the corner there cannot be an us and them mentality. We cannot superimpose, we must instead endeavor to understand. And in this process, each one of us must take a certain amount of responsibility. The police are the community. I am the community. I cannot remove myself from the Deep East. It may be isolated and insular, but the only way to change that is to not let it be. They are our children, our neighbors, our friends, and our compatriots. And until we learn how to practice that in reality, I firmly believe that nothing can change.


“If you completely ran out of money today, what would you do? For food? To find a job? Tell me, what would you do?”

Cesaire Kennedy, an East Oakland resident who recently became homeless, asked me that question. I’ve thought about this before actually. What I would do if I suddenly ran out of money and had no support group to fall back on. I suppose it’s kind of a morbid thought, but in any case I have come up with a couple of money-making ideas that could get me by from day to day —at least in the beginning— if I ever was in that situation. In deep East Oakland, it seems almost like everyone thinks and lives life this way: one day at a time.

Usually when you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, their response shows some kind of long term commitment, like going to college or getting some kind of training. But here, in the deep East, so many teens and children told me they don’t really see the point in investing in their futures. The constant threat of death that lingers over them makes them seek instant gratification. Money in their pockets now, because tomorrow is uncertain. It’s heartbreaking in many ways, but so empowering in others.

You can sense the entrepreneurial spirit and rugged individualism that motivates the residents here. Even children as young as 6 and 7 possess this intense drive to make money, on their own, and relying on nothing but ingenuity. Some call this hustling. Here it’s called having “streetology.”

When three 11-year-old kids stood outside of a Valero gas station on Macarthur Blvd to fundraise, they went far beyond a typical lemonade stand. They gave well-rehearsed speeches and prepared a fairly legitimate looking donation sheet. They were asking gas station customers to donate money for their basketball uniforms. But it turns out, it was actually just a scam. A scam organized by these elementary school-aged children. I agree it’s mischievous, but when you look past that, these kids demonstrated something greater: initiative. They were poised, not at all shy, and very good public speakers. They invested time into their money-making scheme. They were clever — the image of an “11-year-old used-car salesman” came to mind.

It seems so many residents possess this same drive and resourcefulness when it comes to working. Of course the work ethic is different though. There are very few businesses here, but many of the young residents said they don’t even want to work a formal job. And there are many different reasons why. For one, you can make a day’s worth of money by standing on a street corner for just a few hours, selling drugs. And the drug market in Oakland is very unique. It isn’t this highly organized operation. Most dealers are pretty much on their own, with the exception of the occasional “lookout.” The drug trade is another example of the incredibly individualistic mindset of the streets.

Other deep East residents told me they choose not to work formal jobs because employers make them feel like they aren’t good enough — because of the way they dress and speak. They say they feel like they are forced to compromise their personalities and behavior too much.

“You just want to be yourself no matter what,” resident Daniel Smith told me. “And [employers] really, they want you to act like white people. You know act like prim and proper and speak well and be very polite and you know talk about golf with the customer please, which somebody has told me. And it’s like, no, that’s not me. I want to talk about cars or something.”

Personally, this doesn’t really make sense. It seems like we all have to compromise, in the workplace and in life. Even a street worker has to negotiate and act a certain way to make a sale. But I do understand how having your character constantly judged and criticized by an employer could make you want to leave and not go back. And even in those times when I don’t understand, I know that I don’t need to. I haven’t been faced with the same disadvantages as many of the residents here. We don’t need to understand that mentality. We just need to understand that this mentality was something we somehow helped create.

Fault Lines Voices: Akeila "Yung16" Tolson

16-year-old Akeila Tolson is one of the Youth UpRising contributors to this series. She is a thoughtful and creative young poet and rapper, who learned to love music from her older brother. She tells us about her experience looking up to him as she grew up in East Oakland, and how he inspired her to take charge of her future.